New Oral History Release: Peter Hanff on Books, Bibliography, and The Bancroft Library
Rarely do we get to interview one of our own at The Bancroft Library. But if anyone fits within the “must interview” category, it is Peter Hanff. Hanff, who has been with the Bancroft Library for close to fifty years, is currently Deputy Director of The Bancroft Library. Hanff was born in Florida in 1944 and then moved with his family to Southern California in 1956. He attended the University of California Santa Barbara as an undergraduate and then the University of California Los Angeles where he earned his MLS. After an internship at the Library of Congress and a year and a half as assistant to the coordinator of information systems there, he was selected as a rare-book fellow at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Hanff then accepted a position as reference librarian at The Bancroft Library in 1970. Hanff worked in various positions and on a variety of projects over the years, including as Interim Director and later Acting Director of The Bancroft Library. Hanff also is a noted scholar of the author Frank Baum and his series of Oz books. In this oral history, Peter Hanff discusses: his education background and early interest in young adult literature and book collecting; the transformation of library and archival work from the 1960s to the present; the administration, personnel, and collections of The Bancroft Library; and his contributions to the documentation of the works of Frank Baum and other authors.
Every April, as the school year is fast coming to a close, the Oral History Center hosts its very own commencement ceremony. For seven years running, we have produced this event to celebrate the oral history class of that year — meaning we thank and honor those people whose interviews were completed in the previous year. The Oral History Class of 2019 numbered some 111 individuals who participated in a number of oral history projects ranging from environmental regulation and wine growing to philanthropy and scientific discovery to opera and an army base.
This very special event gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we do — the meaning of oral history to us, to our narrators, and to the community at large. This year we were thinking about how oral histories “make history” in several ways: The interviews, once recorded and made available to the public, provide the raw material that is then used for the making of historical narratives by historians, journalists, students, you name it; the interviews offer historical narratives and analysis on their own, and thus they are one account of history, maybe the best first draft of history; and, perhaps most importantly, those we interview have already made history by living their lives — by building corporations, participating in social movements, creating works of art, running for political office, serving in the military, mentoring students . . . by making wine! History happens — and has happened — but through the work of the Oral History Center, and the generous and essential contributions of our narrators, history is made.
In advance of the event, I asked my colleagues for some examples of moments from their interviews when history was made — when something was told that seemed new to the historical record or in some way demanded a rethinking of it; when a narrator provided an account of a previously unrecognized contribution made — really any example of when history was made.
Amanda Tewes, in her first interview for the center, interviewed Jeanne Rose, who joined us the for event, which was held on this year on Thursday, April 25. Jeanne is a remarkable woman who, in her interview, provided deep insight into something that most people think they know well: the 1960s counterculture. In her telling, we learn of a loose-knit group who were the first 100 to populate the Haight-Ashbury, their deep connections to Big Sur, and how they began to change history with the “Summer of Love” in 1967. We further learn that 60s counterculture didn’t die at the infamous and bloody Altamont concert (which she attended) as the majority of her interview covers the 1970s and beyond when she became an influential herbalist and aromatherapist. With Jeanne Rose, the ideals and the spirit of the 60s live on. Jeanne Rose made history.
Todd Holmes, a historian with the Center since 2016, has created a remarkable project documenting the origins of the academic field of Chicano/a Studies, and for this he interviewed Ed Escobar, an Arizona State professor. In his oral history, Escobar tells how he pioneered some of the earliest Latino history courses — out of necessity because there were none. Teaching on the East Coast and then the midwest he learned that the Mexican American experience did not resonate like it did in California. But the Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican did. So he put together one of the first Latino history classes on those regions, expanding the definition of Latino and Latino studies in the process. Ed Escobar made history.
We have been fortunate to partner with the East Bay Regional Park District for a few years now and we’ve done a few dozen interviews already — covering many different topics from ranching to public education. Shanna Farrell, who is the project director and lead interviewer, shared with me a moment in her interview with Lawson Sakai. Sakai’s parents were from Japan, so in World War II, his family left the mandated West Coast exclusion area to avoid internment, ultimately settling in Colorado. They returned to California and to farming after the war, but with no money and an unwelcoming attitude of locals, this wasn’t easy. Enter Driscoll Farms, which is a larger grower of fruits today. Immediately after the war, they offered the returning Japanese-Americans a good deal, which included a 50/50 split on profits from the strawberry harvest. According to Sakai, this helped many families back on their feet after the war, allowing them to earn enough money to buy their own farms and thus independence. Shanna said, “I scoured my food history books and didn’t find any information about this. I felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden historical gem.” Lawson Sakai made history.
This past year we renewed our long-running partnership with the Sierra Club to document the organization’s history, and Roger Eardley-Pryor conducted two interviews this year, one with former president Michele Perrault. Roger recalled for me how this interview provides a unique and personal window into the international dimensions of environmentalism. Perrault told stories of traveling to the Soviet Union, China, and India in the early 1990s where she and her colleagues networked with proto-environmental groups, teaching them how to organize and what the key issues were. Their work resulted in, among other things, the creation of some of the first nature preserves in those countries and the establishment of the robust network that is in place today. Michele Perrault made history.
In the coming weeks and months, we will release the oral histories that are not already posted online. This past year we conducted at least 500 hours of new interviews and we are deeply grateful for the support of numerous individuals and institutions for making this work possible. Soon we will begin to post the names of these sponsors on our website so you can thank them too. In the meantime, enjoy the photos and our video from the commencement, highlighting interviews from the Oral History Center Class of 2019.
Our 10-minute video features highlights from the interviews of all of the narrators who were able to attend commencement, plus some bonus interviews. Our remarkable narrators share their insights about nature, science, art, the university, wine making, and more.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, UC Berkeley
As part of an ongoing partnership between the Oral History Center and the Getty Trust, we recently conducted an interview with a former member of the J. Paul Getty Trust Board of Trustees: Peter J. Taylor.
Peter J. Taylor is president of ECMC [Education Credit Management Corporation] Foundation, and served on the Board of Trustees for the Getty Trust from 2005 to 2017. Mr. Taylor grew up in Los Angeles, California, and attended University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the 1970s. He is a graduate of the Coro Fellowship Program and completed his master’s degree at Claremont Graduate School. Taylor then worked as legislative staff for California Assemblyman Mike Roos. He transitioned to finance and worked for the Lehman Brothers until the 2008 Recession. Taylor served as the CFO of the University of California from 2009 to 2014, and then joined ECMC Foundation in 2014. In addition to the Getty Trust, Taylor has served on the boards of the James Irvine Foundation, the UCLA Alumni Association, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, and has been a member of the California State University System Board of Trustees since 2015. He was previously Alumni Representative on the University of California Board of Regents, and was chair of the UCLA African American Admissions and Retention Task Force.
Taylor’s oral history interview offers insight into the management of the Getty Trust from the perspective of a trustee, as well as the challenges and successes of steering such a large arts organization. Taylor’s background in education and serving on the boards of other nonprofits bolstered his confidence in taking on the many challenges of the Getty Trust, though he admits he had little previous exposure to visual arts.
When Taylor joined the organization in 2005, the organization was facing an antiquities scandal, was the subject of an investigation by the California Attorney General, was struggling with internal management, and was receiving bad press from media outlets. The 2008 Recession also posed a problem for an arts institution that relied upon its endowment. With his background in finance, Taylor was an obvious choice for Chair of the Audit Committee, and helped lead the organization through the many difficult discussions about budget cuts and institutional priorities. Listen as Taylor recounts how the Recession impacted the Getty:
Taylor also points to the significant strides the Getty Trust has made in creating greater public impact through exhibitions that speak to the local community, education programs that bring more children to the museum, and providing more resources online – especially Getty images. In fact, he counts the move towards open content as one of the greatest achievements during his tenure as a trustee. Listen as Taylor discusses pushing for more open access resources at the Getty Trust:
Explore Peter J. Taylor’s oral history and learn more about the mission and history of the Getty Trust!
“Freeze-Dried Turkey, Food Tech, and Futures”
by Caitlin Iswono
Caitlin Iswono is a sophomore undergraduate student at UC Berkeley majoring in chemical engineering. In the Spring 2019 semester, Caitlin worked with historian Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center and earned academic credits as part of UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on the cutting edge research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned. Caitlin provided valuable research for Eardley-Pryor’s science-focused oral history interviews this past semester. Caitlin’s explorations of the Oral History Center’s existing interviews resulted in this month’s “From the Archives” article.
“I had my turkeys. I think I may still have a piece of freeze-dried turkey that’s now fifty years old.”
— C. Judson King, “A Career in Chemical Engineering and University Administration, 1963-2013,” oral history interviews conducted by Lisa Rubens and Emily Redman, with Sam Redman, in 2011, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2013.
In 1963, at age 29, C. Judson “Jud” King was backpacking in California when a fellow Boy Scouts Master revealed he freeze-dried his food before weeklong trips to the Sierra Mountains with groups of ten to twelve people. While the levels of safety and sanitation were not like today’s freeze-dried food, this period in King’s early adulthood sparked a branch of his later academic research that opened new discoveries and advancements in the food-technology industry. Like King’s connection with hiking and freeze-drying, I also aspire to coalesce my personal interests—namely, in humanitarian aid—with research in food technology for my future career.
King, a professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, held positions in a wide variety of academic and administrative posts. Throughout his career, King served as the Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs of the University of California system, as Dean of the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, and as Chair of Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. With over 240 research publications, including a widely used chemical engineering textbook, 14 patents, and major awards from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, King has lived an accomplished life. But how did he get started in chemical engineering? And what might a chemical engineering student like me take from his experiences?
When asked in his 2011 oral history interview why he chose chemical engineering, King simply answered “I like chemistry. I like math. What should I look to major in college? The answer was chemical engineering.” King’s statement rings true for me, too. As an incoming freshman to Berkeley in 2017, I knew I would major in chemical engineering, but I was unsure what I wanted to do with this degree. In Cal’s rigorous chemical engineering program, I occasionally lost sight of the bigger picture. Constant midterm cycles, weekly problem sets, daily academic tasks, and my broader student activities all made it easy to avoid exploring why I’m pursuing my chemical engineering degree and what I hope to accomplish with it. However, learning from the experiences and insights of upperclassmen, graduate instructors, and my professors, I’ve found new purpose and aspirations for my future.
Not unlike King, I also became interested in food technology. My interest in food-tech began after attending Berkeley’s on-campus UNICEF Club and hearing guest lectures on the profound effects advanced food technology can have for developing countries. UNICEF is a United Nations organization charged with protecting children’s rights and helps over 190 disadvantaged territories around the world. It does so, in part, by incorporating food science and technology in their efforts to assist malnourished children, particularly with Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTF). Learning about this advancement sparked my interest in food science, similar to how hiking inspired King’s research transition to freeze-drying foods. King’s successful research and collaborations with companies such as Proctor and Gamble opened my mind to new possibilities. Reading King’s oral history interview and discovering his experiences in diverse fields within chemical engineering provided guidance on a possible career path for me.
King’s oral history also offered insight on different processes of freeze drying and how they influenced history. As King explained it, the development of freeze-dried techniques did not emerge from a desire for portable food. Rather, it arose from efforts to preserve medicines and blood plasma cells for medical reasons, particularly from isolating and stabilizing penicillin during World War II. Only after World War II ended did industries utilize freeze-drying to preserve foods. Industrial processors and academics like Jud King realized that freeze-drying techniques could apply to many fields, whether for military use, backpacking, space travel, or pharmaceuticals. These realizations have since inspired me to combine my passions for UNICEF advocacy and food technology to positively impact underdeveloped countries.
King’s interview reminded me that every person starts from somewhere and it’s okay to not have the entirety of life figured out from the very beginning. King’s interests in freeze-drying led to him becoming a renowned professor emeritus and former dean of Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. His story reminded me that the most anyone can do is strive to learn new things, try your hardest, and take on new opportunities. Your path and future track will then build itself.
— Caitlin Iswono, UC Berkeley, Class of 2021
Herb Sandler and Marion Osher Sandler formed one of the most remarkable partnerships in the histories of American business and philanthropy—and, if their friends and associates would have a say in things, in the living memory of marriage writ large. This oral history project documents the lives of Herb and Marion Sandler through their shared pursuits in raising a family, serving as co-CEOs for the savings and loan Golden West Financial, and establishing a remarkably influential philanthropy in the Sandler Foundation. This project consists of eighteen unique oral history interviews, at the center of which is a 24-hour life history interview with Herb Sandler.
Marion Osher Sandler was born October 17, 1930, in Biddeford, Maine, to Samuel and Leah Osher. She was the youngest of five children; all of her siblings were brothers and all went on to distinguished careers in medicine and business. She attended Wellesley as an undergraduate where she was elected into Phi Beta Kappa. Her first postgraduate job was as an assistant buyer with Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan, but she left in pursuit of more lofty goals. She took a job on Wall Street, in the process becoming only the second woman on Wall Street to hold a non-clerical position. She started with Dominick & Dominick in its executive training program and then moved to Oppenheimer and Company where she worked as a highly respected analyst. While building an impressive career on Wall Street, she earned her MBA at New York University.
Herb Sandler was born on November 16, 1931 in New York City. He was the second of two children and remained very close to his brother, Leonard, throughout his life. He grew up in subsidized housing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood of Two Bridges. Both his father and brother were attorneys (and both were judges too), so after graduating from City College, he went for his law degree at Columbia. He practiced law both in private practice and for the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor where he worked on organized crime cases. While still living with his parents at Knickerbocker Village, he engaged in community development work with the local settlement house network, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. At Two Bridges he was exposed to the work of Episcopal Bishop Bill Wendt, who inspired his burgeoning commitment to social justice.
Given their long and successful careers in business, philanthropy, and marriage, Herb and Marion’s story of how they met has taken on somewhat mythic proportions. Many people interviewed for this project tell the story. Even if the facts don’t all align in these stories, one central feature is shared by all: Marion was a force of nature, self-confident, smart, and, in Herb’s words, “sweet, without pretentions.” Herb, however, always thought of himself as unremarkable, just one of the guys. So when he first met Marion, he wasn’t prepared for this special woman to be actually interested in dating him. The courtship happened reasonably quickly despite some personal issues that needed to be addressed (which Herb discusses in his interview) and introducing one another to their respective families (but, as Herb notes, not to seek approval!).
Within a few years of marriage, Marion was bumping up against the glass ceiling on Wall Street, recognizing that she would not be making partner status any time soon. While working as an analyst, however, she learned that great opportunity for profit existed in the savings and loan sector, which was filled with bloat and inefficiency as well as lack of financial sophistication and incompetence among the executives. They decided to find an investment opportunity in California and, with the help of Marion’s brothers (especially Barney Osher), purchased a tiny two-branch thrift in Oakland, California: Golden West Savings and Loan.
Golden West—which later operated under the retail brand of World Savings—grew by leaps and bounds, in part through acquisition of many regional thrifts and in part through astute research leading to organic expansion into new geographic areas. The remarkable history of Golden West is revealed in great detail in many of the interviews in this project, but most particularly in the interviews with Herb Sandler, Steve Daetz, Russ Kettell, and Mike Roster, all of whom worked at the institution. The savings and loan was marked by key attributes during the forty-three years in which it was run by the Sandlers. Perhaps most important among these is the fact that over that period of time the company was profitable all but two years. This is even more remarkable when considering just how volatile banking was in that era, for there were liquidity crises, deregulation schemes, skyrocketing interest rates, financial recessions, housing recessions, and the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, in which the entire sector was nearly obliterated through risky or foolish decisions made by Congress, regulators, and managements. Through all of this, however, Golden West delivered consistent returns to their investors. Indeed, the average annual growth in earnings per share over 40 years was 19 percent, a figure that made Golden West second only to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and the second best record in American corporate history.
Golden West is also remembered for making loans to communities that had been subject to racially and economically restrictive redlining practices. Thus, the Sandlers played a role in opening up the dream of home ownership to more Americans. In the offices too, Herb and Marion made a point of opening positions to women, such as branch manager and loan officer, previously held only by men. And, by the mid-1990s, Golden West began appointing more women and people of color to its board of directors, which already was presided over by Marion Sandler, one of the longest-serving female CEOs of a major company in American history. The Sandlers sold Golden West to Wachovia in 2006. The interviews tell the story of the sale, but at least one major reason for the decision was the fact that the Sandlers were spending a greater percentage of their time in philanthropic work.
One of the first real forays by the Sandlers into philanthropic work came in the wake of the passing of Herb’s brother Leonard in 1988. Herb recalls his brother with great respect and fondness and the historical record shows him to be a just and principled attorney and jurist. Leonard was dedicated to human rights, so after his passing, the Sandlers created a fellowship in his honor at Human Rights Watch. After this, the Sandlers giving grew rapidly in their areas of greatest interest: human rights, civil rights, and medical research. They stepped up to become major donors to Human Rights Watch and, after the arrival of Anthony Romero in 2001, to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Sandlers’ sponsorship of medical research demonstrates their unique, creative, entrepreneurial, and sometimes controversial approach to philanthropic work. With the American Asthma Foundation, which they founded, the goal was to disrupt existing research patterns and to interest scientists beyond the narrow confines of pulmonology to investigate the disease and to produce new basic research about it. Check out the interview with Bill Seaman for more on this initiative. The Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research at the University of California, San Francisco likewise seeks out highly-qualified researchers who are willing to engage in high-risk research projects. The interview with program director Keith Yamamoto highlights the impacts and the future promise of the research supported by the Sandlers. The Sandler Fellows program at UCSF selects recent graduate school graduates of unusual promise and provides them with a great deal of independence to pursue their own research agenda, rather than serve as assistants in established labs. Joe DeRisi was one of the first Sandler Fellows and, in his interview, he describes the remarkable work he has accomplished while at UCSF as a fellow and, now, as faculty member who heads his own esteemed lab.
The list of projects, programs, and agencies either supported or started by the Sandlers runs too long to list here, but at least two are worth mentioning for these endeavors have produced impacts wide and far: the Center for American Progress and ProPublica. The Center for American Progress had its origins in Herb Sandler’s recognition that there was a need for a liberal policy think tank that could compete in the marketplace of ideas with groups such as the conservative Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The Sandlers researched existing groups and met with many well-connected and highly capable individuals until they forged a partnership with John Podesta, who had served as chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. The Center for American Progress has since grown by leaps and bounds and is now recognized for being just what it set out to be.
The same is also true with ProPublica. The Sandlers had noticed the decline of traditional print journalism in the wake of the internet and lamented what this meant for the state of investigative journalism, which typically requires a meaningful investment of time and money. After spending much time doing due diligence—another Sandler hallmark—and meeting with key players, including Paul Steiger of the Wall Street Journal, they took the leap and established a not-for-profit investigative journalism outfit, which they named ProPublica. ProPublica not only has won several Pulitzer Prizes, it has played a critical role in supporting our democratic institutions by holding leaders accountable to the public. Moreover, the Sandler Foundation is now a minority sponsor of the work of ProPublica, meaning that others have recognized the value of this organization and stepped forward to ensure its continued success. Herb Sandler’s interview as well as several other interviews describe many of the other initiatives created and/or supported by the foundation, including: the Center for Responsible Lending, Oceana, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Learning Policy Institute, and more.
A few interviewees shared the idea that when it comes to Herb and Marion Sandler there are actually three people involved: Marion Sandler, Herb Sandler, and “Herb and Marion.” The later creation is a kind of mind-meld between the two which was capable of expressing opinions, making decisions, and forging a united front in the ambitious projects that they accomplished. I think this makes great sense because I find it difficult to fathom that two individuals alone could do what they did. Because Marion Sandler passed away in 2012, I was not able to interview her, but I am confident in my belief that a very large part of her survives in Herb’s love of “Herb and Marion,” which he summons when it is time to make important decisions. And let us not forget that in the midst of all of this work they raised two accomplished children, each of whom make important contributions to the foundation and beyond. Moreover, the Sandlers have developed many meaningful friendships (see the interviews with Tom Laqueur and Ronnie Caplane), some of which have spanned the decades.
The eighteen interviews of the Herb and Marion Sandler oral history project, then, are several projects in one. It is a personal, life history of a remarkable woman and her mate and life partner; it is a substantive history of banking and of the fate of the savings and loan institution in the United States; and it is an examination of the current world of high-stakes philanthropy in our country at a time when the desire to do good has never been more needed and the importance of doing that job skillfully never more necessary.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, UC Berkeley
List of Interviews of the Marion and Herbert Sandler Oral History Project
by Todd Holmes
“The true history of the Coastal Commission is what you don’t see, namely the developments along the coast the agency either denied or significantly scaled back.”
In 1972, the citizens of California voted overwhelmingly to create a new agency charged with regulating all development along the state’s coastline, an agency that became known as the California Coastal Commission. For nearly 50 years, the Commission has worked with coastal communities to shape development along California’s shore, efforts guided by the dual aims of environmental protection and public access. It is often said that the true history of the Coastal Commission is what you don’t see, namely the developments along the coast the agency either denied or significantly scaled back. This “unseen” history stands at the heart of the 15-episode podcast, Coastal Tales: The Long Struggle to Preserve California’s Coast, a production of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley in partnership with the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. We’ve just launched the pilot episode about saving Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz, and the rest of the podcast is slated to be released in the fall of 2020.
The pilot episode, “Saving Lighthouse Point,” tells the story of the fight in Santa Cruz during the early 1970s against massive development that sought to turn one of the city’s last open parcels of coastal land into a bustling tourist and business hub. Bolstered by the creation of the Coastal Commission, the citizens of Santa Cruz organized and challenged the city council’s support of the project, ultimately saving Lighthouse Point. The successful campaign not only came to stand as a testament to the Coastal Commission and its influence in many coastal communities, but also would prove a watershed moment in the history of Santa Cruz.
Each episode of the podcast will feature a specific site on the state’s coastline and detail the story of a proposed development that, if not for the Coastal Commission, would have significantly altered those sites and communities forever. Led by Todd Holmes, a historian at the Oral History Center and affiliated scholar with Stanford’s Bill Lane Center, the podcast draws on oral history interviews currently underway with former staff and commissioners of the agency, as well as community activists closely involved with the Commission over the decades. The project also draws on Holmes’ research conducted with the California Coastal Commission Project, which the Bill Lane Center initiated in 2014. When complete, the 15 episodes of Coastal Tales will be housed on a dedicated website that will feature the full transcripts of the interviews along with additional information and resources on the history of the Commission. The public will also eventually be able to access the episodes at the sites themselves with the scan of a QR code.
If you’d like to learn more about this project, please contact Todd Holmes at email@example.com or 510-666-3687. You can also support our future episodes by writing California Coastal Commission in the special instructions section of the donation form.
Mondragón is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles working on a project that looks at the sport of boxing and the ways in which black and brown boxers politically and culturally express themselves via the famous ring entrance. Academically, Mondragón has written reviews of the boxing documentary “Champs” for the Journal of Sports History and Louis Moore’s I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915, for the International Review for the Sociology of Sport. He has also written on boxing for Remezcla, We Are Mitú, and L.A. Taco and has been quoted in CNN and Bleacher Report articles and interviewed by ESPN Deportes-Seattle. More recently, he contributed an article and photographs of professional boxers José Carlos Ramírez and Carlos “The Solution” Morales for The Streets Magazine. Mondragón is the recipient of the prestigious University of California Cota Robles Fellowship, NCAA Ethnic Minority Enhancement Postgraduate Award, and Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports-Scholar Award. In the summer of 2017, Mondragón was a Fellow of the Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program in Washington DC where he conducted interviews for the Latinos and Baseball Project.
A Word from Mondragón on His Project:
My research advances conversations in the fields of critical sports studies, Chicana/o/x studies, cultural studies, and American studies. I explore the sport of boxing and the ways in which professional fighters deploy expressive culture (music, style, fashion, and entourages) in their ring entrances. I conceptualize the ring entrance as a political site of struggle where boxers communicate new forms of subjectivities and identities, and at times, both overtly and covertly perform dissent and resistance to dominant ideologies and structures of power. Given that boxers navigate a hyper-capitalist and neoliberal sporting industry that is unregulated, I argue that boxers are vulnerable pawns that navigate a shifting sports market as well as the effects of dominant ideologies of race, gender, sexuality, and poverty. For me, the ring entrance has spatial dimensions of infinite possibilities that allows fighters to subtly and creatively reimagine an alternative world and liberation.
All photos by Rudy Mondragón
We recently caught up with Mondragón to ask him about his background, how he became interested in boxing, and who he plans to interview this summer.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you go to school and what are you studying?
I am in the fifth year of my doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. I am working on my PhD in Chicana and Chicano Studies. When I first started my studies, I was planning on conducting a 16th century cultural history on indigenous communities in Central Mexico to interrogate race and religious hegemony. That didn’t really work out [chuckle]. I have always been passionate about boxing. A couple of weeks into my first quarter of graduate school, I realized that I had not watched a single boxing match in over a month. Something clicked in my mind and heart. I mentally checked out of the seminar and started writing down my ideas about how boxing could be an area of study that would allow me to interrogate race, history, stories, culture, and athletic-activism. I was excited but also worried that my ideas would not be accepted. That’s when I decided to talk with Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson. I trust her greatly, so we scheduled a Skype meeting, so I could share my new research vision. I’ll never forget what happened during our talk. As I shared my ideas, Dr. Johnson reached over the table and grabbed a book. She put the book in front of her laptop camera, so I could see the cover. The book was about women and boxing! It was the sign I needed to pursue this area of study. Dr. Johnson is now the chair of my committee.
Q: How did you become interested in researching professional boxing?
My parents got me into watching professional boxing. I was 7 years old in the summer of 1992. This was the year that the Fight of the Century was to take place between Julio Cesar Chavez and Hector “Macho” Camacho. The fight was being advertised everywhere. My mother would always have a Spanish print of the local television listings. I remember the September issue of that print featured both boxers on the front cover. It was my mom who indirectly put me on to boxing. On the night of September 12, 1992, my father took me to my uncle Felipe’s house for the big fight. As a working-class family, the reason we went to his house for the fight was because he had a black box, which was a device designed to gain illegal access to all cable television channels. This meant that pay-per-view events, like this fight in particular, would not cost my uncle a single dime. I remember rooting for Chavez because his Mexican nationality was similar to my father’s. I wanted Chavez to win, but as I watched some of the behind the scenes footage from Camacho’s dressing room, I began to gravitate towards the Puerto Rican fighter. He was flamboyant, flashy, loud, and full of energy. He had a boxing outfit that resembled a Captain America suit. The only difference was that on the back of the red, white, and blue outfit was a huge “M” for Macho. His suit was representative of Captain Puerto Rico or Captain Macho. It was really awesome because it was a proud statement about who he was. As Camacho made his way out his dressing room and towards the tunnel to start his ring walk, the sounds of McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” blasted inside the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. I remember seeing Puerto Rican flags in the stands, fans were dancing, and Camacho’s mom had her hands raised in the air as her son danced his way to the ring. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the moment where my research on professional boxing got started. Since then, I’ve never stopped watching, studying, discussing, and now, writing about and photographing the world of boxing.
Q: You’re planning to interview Fernando “El Feroz” Vargas, a two-time light middleweight world champion who boxed from 1997 – 2007. How did you choose him and what topics and themes are you hoping to explore with him in your interview?
I was 17 years old when I first watched Fernando Vargas (AKA El Feroz and The Aztec Warrior). This was in 2002, a year after the September 11 attacks in New York. This match was one of Fernando’s biggest career fights. He was going up against Oscar De La Hoya, a fighter that I was a huge fan of. Seventeen-year-old me was thrilled to watch De La Hoya fight against Vargas. Part of my fandom for De La Hoya was due to my alignment with De La Hoya’s identity performance. Oscar was the definition of the American Dream for some Mexican Americans. He is what the boxing world considers a corporate fighter, which in his case, meant he cultivated his career as a clean-cut corporate friendly fighter who performed a respectability that made him consumable by Mexican American middle-class and usable by corporate brands. It wasn’t until I got older and began to take Chicana and Chicano Studies courses that I realized why Fernando Vargas’s performance of identities was so important. Vargas’s fight with De La Hoya took place in the post-9/11 moment. This was a moment in which Michael Silk describes as a time in history where “dissent was silenced, a time in which it was not possible to fully articulate a sense of being American outside that which was normalized.” It was also a time when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was formed and the number of noncitizens detained in detention centers skyrocketed. Rather than assimilate to the political moment, Vargas entered the ring for his fight against De La Hoya in an unapologetic, courageous, and creative manner. He walked to the ring to live Mexican ranchero music, wore the colors of the Mexican flag, and was sponsored by DADA, a brand that was popular among hip hop communities. The media and fans often described him as a thug because of the way he dressed, his bald head, and his masculine bravado. This unapologetic performance in the post-9/11 moment is why Vargas matters as he can teach us a great deal about the ways in which subtle resistance can be performed within a sports and political context through the deployment of expressive culture. In his case, music and fashion.
As such, some of the themes I hope to explore are Fernando’s autobiography, particularly his childhood when he lived in the agricultural city of Oxnard, California and how he found the sport of boxing. Often, boxing is a sport that recruits people from low-income and poverty. For a select few, boxing serves as a vehicle out of poverty. I also want to explore his relationship with his former trainer, The Big G, who has had a huge impact on Fernando’s life both in and out of the ring. Fernando was also known for his ring entrances that featured the song “No Me Se Rajar” (I do not quit), Aztec pyramid stones that he would punch through to get to the boxing ring, and the use of Mexican and Aztec symbols for his ring attire. By exploring Fernando’s ring entrances, I will be able to explore Fernando’s multiple identities and how those informed the curation of his ring entrances. And finally, I want to center his experience as a boxer who fought in the pre-and post-9/11 moment. In particular, I want to learn more about his claims to dignity and cultural pride during this historical period.
Q: What are you most excited to get out of your fellowship with the OHC?
The timing of being awarded this fellowship was terrific. I just defended my dissertation proposal, making me a doctoral candidate. As I am on the eve of conducting interviews with professional boxers for my dissertation project, this fellowship will allow me to gain necessary guidance from Shanna Farrell. It will also give me a hands-on experience in conducting the longest oral history to date in my career. I am excited about this because I will have experts from the Oral History Center providing me with direction, feedback, and critique that will help refine my current skill set and strengths when it comes to conducting interviews and oral histories. I’m also excited to contribute the first oral history with a professional fighter to be archived at a prestigious research library.
Documenting the history of the University of California is an endeavor that we take very seriously at the Oral History Center. As a result of our work over the past sixty-five years, we have conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews in which some key facet, influential individual, or impactful event of the university is narrated and explained. Hundreds more interviews (1,995 according to our search tool) at least mention the university in passing, providing anecdotes that further expand the archive of first-personal testimony about the university. The University of California’s history is among the best documented in the world because these numerous and diverse voices were recorded by the Oral History Center and archived at the Bancroft Library.
All the more remarkable is that we have done this work with very little dedicated university support. Certainly we have received occasional funding from the UC Office of the President, this or that college or department, or a benefactor who wants to underwrite a specific interview. These type donations, in fact, are responsible for the vast majority of University of California oral histories that we’ve done, and we are grateful for the continued support of those who recognize a need for an interview and work with us to make it happen.
This works well enough, except in those instances in which we identify a key individual who needs to be interviewed but for whom there is no clear benefactor, or for documenting groups of people who have been left out of the mainstream historical narrative. In order to capture these oral histories, we have devoted the funds of one of our endowments to support an annual oral history in university history. The “Class of 1931” annual interview about university history is selected through a nomination process. Nominees are selected based on willingness of the nominee to participate, OHC interviewer expertise, uniqueness and rarity of the nominee’s story and level of contribution to campus life, and the generation of the nominee. Since we began this initiative, we have interviewed Laura Nader, Susan Ervin-Tripp, and others.
If you know of an individual who has made an important contribution to the campus (as a staff, faculty, or administrator) and has not been adequately recognized for their work, please consider nominating that person for the “Class of 1931” annual interview in university history. Nominations are due by May 1, 2019.
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center
It is with great sadness that we share the news that Willie C. Gordon, lawyer, noir writer, and library supporter, passed away on March 17, 2019. We conducted an oral history interview with him in 2017 and 2018.
Gordon was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and attended college at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his law degree at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. He worked as a lawyer in San Francisco for many years before becoming a mystery writer. He was the author of six books, including The Chinese Jars, King of the Bottom, and The Halls of Power, among others. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of libraries, and has made significant contributions to the Whittier High Library and to The Bancroft Library for their burgeoning California Detective Fiction Collection. OHC Interviewer Shanna Farrell interviewed Gordon about his early life growing up in Los Angeles, his affinity for libraries, education and career in the Bay Area, and becoming a writer in his retirement.
Captured in part through the Oral History Center’s interview of Sickler, the labor activist’s winning personality and creative intelligence is evident throughout all the essays.
By Lisa Rubens, Oral History Center Historian and Academic Specialist, Emerita
At 19 David Sickler, with ambitions to run his own horse ranch, went to work for Coors Brewing Company. It was the best-paying job he could find in his hometown of Golden, Colorado. But the working conditions there were so deplorable, the control William and Joseph Coors had over the lives of their workers so complete—and as Dave would learn over the government of Colorado and some of the most powerful right-wing institutions in the nation—that David committed himself to the labor movement, first as a union shop steward and then as head of the Brewery Workers Local 336. He led a strike against Coors in l977 and organized a national boycott of the beer that lasted ten years. This catapulted him into the leadership of the AFL-CIO and some of the most critical labor struggles from the l970s through his retirement in 2015.
Newly published by UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education, From Coors to California: David Sickler and The New Working Class is a collection of six essays written by scholars and labor activists that focus on key industries and constituencies Sickler targeted and the strategies he employed during his nearly fifty year career as a labor organizer and leader. The book is based substantially on an oral history that I conducted for the Oral History Center in 2014: David Sickler: A Lifetime as Labor Organizer, AFL-CIO Leader and Champion of Immigrant Workers.
An essay on the Coors strike discusses how Sickler became close friends with the San Francisco gay-rights activist Howard Wallace, having determined that gay bars in the City—and Latinx communities in Los Angeles—had the highest consumption of Coors beer in the country. They were able to stop the sale of Coors in most bars and kept distributors from handling Coors—a strategy replicated throughout the country. Another essay on immigrant worker organizing shows how Sickler brought those who most trade unions considered threats to their movement, and who had been excluded, into unions and ultimately into the political mainstream of California. This took a lot of commitment, courage, and finesse. A new generation of Latinx leaders emerged from campaigns against California’s rabid anti-immigrant and labor Propositions l87 and 226. When longtime labor activist and California state assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 2005—the first Latino mayor—he appointed Sickler as his senior labor advisor and commissioner for the powerful public works department. Other essays examine the role Sickler played coordinating political strategies of various unions and establishing labor think tanks and educational programs.
Sickler’s winning personality and creative intelligence is evident throughout all the essays. The book will serve as a case study for labor organizing: already at book parties held at several labor centers around the country, a separate session has been convened for union representatives. There is also a useful bibliography and photographs that chronicle the narratives. As William Coors often repeated, one of the biggest mistakes he made was hiring David Sickler. As the oral history and this new book demonstrate, David Sickler was the better for it and so has been the history of the labor movement and social justice.